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City Council presses Corrections Department to explain jail violence spike

City Department of Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brann spoke about use of force by staff. (Photo by Mark Hallum)

Department of Corrections officials went before the City Council Committee on Criminal Justice on Monday for a hearing on an uptick in violence in jails last year — and what’s being done to keep the incarcerated and officers safe.

Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brann touted a 14-point plan that included training reform for DOC staff as council members adopted a skeptical outlook on the numbers that indicated persistent violence.

Reports of violence between inmates spiked 12% in 2019, and altercations between detainees and DOC staff went up 37%, Councilman Keith Powers said at the start of the Feb. 3 session. Slashings and stabbings jumped by 10.4% in 2019. Powers cited the Mayor’s office for providing this data.

“Over the years that I’ve been here, the City Council has been increasingly concerned about jail violence,” Powers said. “These indications of violence have been steadily increasing since 2009 with no sign of abating… This is happening despite jail population decreasing over these years and has continued to increase despite the new bail reform.”

Brann — along with DOC Chief-of-Staff Brenda Cooke and Chief of Department Hazel Jennings — defended the agency, saying it had installed 14,000 cameras in city jail facilities and redefined what qualifies use of force. De-escalation techniques have also been incorporated into training, Brann said.

“Despite the overall increase in the total aggregate uses of force, the department has made important progress over the past year,” Brann said. “From 2018 to 2019, compelling total use of force causing serious injury and use of force with minor injury decreased by nine percent. additionally, 74 percent of total use of force in 2019 would classify as ‘Use of Force C,’ which means no injury resulting from that use.”

The Corrections Department is also cracking down on abusive officers, Brann noted. Jennings pointed out that 20 officers were terminated last year for issues related to their use of force, and up to 40 others received punitive measures.

Why are assaults on staff increasing and not decreasing? Jennings said that an assault can be constituted by something that does not necessarily result in harm to the officer, like a soft object being thrown. That being said, minor injuries to DOC staff in assaults had in fact decreased.

According to information that the DOC provided the City Council, there are currently 6,815 open investigations of staff misconduct in a department backlog. About 2,000 cases were lost to an 18 month statute of limitations.

The DOC, however, said it has established an “intake squad” known as the Backlog Investigations Division to address and progress the volume of cases.

Advocates for criminal justice reform had a different view of how the DOC had progressed in its own reforms, as seen in a rally prior to the hearing on the steps of City Hall.

“People are still missing court dates, people are still lacking their medical treatment, people are still missing visits, people are still being tortured day in and day out as we go on with our beautiful lives,” Victoria Phillips from Jail Action Coalition said.

Justice Leadership USA also gave testimony during the hearing and at the rally.

Mark Hallum